UEL Baby Dev Lab

Individual and developmental differences in infants’ responses to emotional challenges

Individual and developmental differences in infants’ responses to emotional challenges

Zeynep Suata

Hi! I’m Zeynep, and my research, lead-supervised by Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke, and co-supervised by Prof Sam Wass & Dr Kasia Kostyrka-Allchorne, is focusing on how infant behavioural and physiological responses to emotional challenges change from 6-months to 12-months of age, and the role of temperament in these responses.

By emotional challenges, we mean 2 to 3-minute-long tasks that are designed by development psychologists over the years and applied to lab settings where one can observe infants’ reactions and self-regulatory behaviours. These challenges are similar to what an infant can often experience in the natural environment, such as toy removal (imagine a fancy toy is taken away from a child while she is playing with it in a playground) or novel masks (seeing something- an animal, a clown e.g.- for the first time)…

Masks used during the masks task in this project

Figure 1. Masks used during the masks task in this project

And by infant behavioural responses, we refer to emotion reactivity, emotion regulation and self-regulation (please see Cole et al., 2004 & Nigg, 2017 on why it is challenging to describe these concepts). We collect heart rate, respiratory sinus arrhythmia and electrodermal activity data as physiological responses. All these responses present a dynamic nature with moment-to-moment fluctuations. This dynamism exists not only within each response but also in the relations between one response to another. Thus, we have a complex picture, and while exploring developmental differences, we attempt to capture characteristics of change over a short period of time using the aforementioned tasks.

Figure 2 below, a nice example from Faraone et al., 2019, suggests a temporal model for emotional symptoms associated with ADHD. It shows how looking at the dynamic relationship between reactivity and self-regulation, e.g. within the ADHD context, can expand the perspective on emotion and psychopathology.

Deficient Emotional Processing in ADHD

Figure 2. Deficient Emotional Processing in ADHD. Each graph exhibits three phases: (1) baseline and generation of emotions, (2) peak levels of emotions, and (3) return of emotions back to baseline…See more details in the paper by Faraone et al., 2019.

Most approaches to understanding self-regulation tie it closely to the development of endogenous control (Hendry et al., 2016; Munakata et al., 2012). These approaches propose that, as children’s endogenous control improves with time, children’s reactions to the emotional challenge should decrease. We find that, in fact, infants’ reactivity to emotional challenges increases over time, through the course of early infancy. We try to understand why this is, using a combination of micro-behavioural analyses considering the potential role of temporal dynamics, eye-tracking and physiological recordings.

Temperament is an endogenous and biologically rooted factor contributing to individual differences in infant’s responses to challenging situations (MacNeill & Pérez‐Edgar, 2020). To explore individual differences in infants’ responses, we look at how infants’ temperament interacts with the intensity and variation of these responses.

We would love to thank all amazing ELSA participants who were extremely generous with their time and patience. We had so much fun together!

Joshua, Llanelli, Llanelli and Yedi, Owen and his mother Tabitha


  1. Cole, P. M., Martin, S. E., & Dennis, T. A. (2004). Emotion Regulation as a Scientific Construct: Methodological Challenges and Directions for Child Development Research. Child Development, 75(2), 317–333. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00673.x
  2. Faraone, S. V., Rostain, A. L., Blader, J., Busch, B., Childress, A. C., Connor, D. F., & Newcorn, J. H. (2019). Practitioner Review: Emotional dysregulation in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder – implications for clinical recognition and intervention. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 60(2), 133–150. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12899
  3. Hendry, A., Jones, E. J. H., & Charman, T. (2016). Executive function in the first three years of life: Precursors, predictors and patterns. Developmental Review, 42, 1–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2016.06.005
  4. MacNeill, L. A., & Pérez‐Edgar, K. (2020). Temperament and Emotion. In S. Hupp & J. Jewell (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Child and Adolescent Development (1st ed., pp. 1–12). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119171492.wecad180
  5. Munakata, Y., Snyder, H. R., & Chatham, C. H. (2012). Developing Cognitive Control: Three Key Transitions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(2), 71–77. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721412436807
  6. Nigg, J. T. (2017). Annual Research Review: On the relations among self-regulation, self-control, executive functioning, effortful control, cognitive control, impulsivity, risk-taking, and inhibition for developmental psychopathology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 58(4), 361–383. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12675
  7. Rothbart, M. K. (2004). Commentary: Differentiated Measures of Temperament and Multiple Pathways to Childhood Disorders. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 33(1), 82–87. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15374424JCCP3301_8